Does Sandberg Let Corporations Continue Discrimination Against Women?

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's "movement" gives corporate America an easy out on promoting women, argues DiversityInc's Barbara Frankel in a first-person column.

By Barbara Frankel


Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In comes out today, and it has been lighting up social media and Sunday talk shows with its concept that women have to "try harder" and not rely on their employers or their mentors to look out for them.

As a woman who has fought for three decades in the workplace for a seat at the table—and who now sees my 28-year-old daughter and several young women I mentor facing similar struggles—I agree with Sandberg that too many women give up too easily as the challenges of family and work become overwhelming. But Sandberg's simplistic solution of urging women to take control of themselves and join "Lean In Circles" to bolster each other ignores the reality that most workplace inequities aren't caused by the victims, but by the institutions and those in power who benefit from continuity.

In other words, we shouldn't let corporate America off the hook for the lack of women in senior management.

Consider this: Women account for just 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs; at DiversityInc Top 50 companies, which are significantly more progressive for race and ethnicity, women do only slightly better: 6 percent of CEOs. Women account for 20 percent of the top level at Fortune 500 companies (CEO and direct reports) and 24 percent at DiversityInc Top 50 companies.

So as someone who came of age in the 1970s, when full equality seemed imminent (to those who read Ms. Magazine religiously, as I did), I have to wonder: What happened?

Corporate Hubris

I understand Sandberg's points on not being passive about leadership and on women making their own success. But the message sent by corporate America has been ambiguous, to say the least. On the one hand, many companies have been singing their own praises for their "flexible" workplaces and how great they are for women—while still having very different promotion tracks for those who can't travel globally for weeks at a time, who may not want to be connected 24/7, or who have more inclusive styles of leadership.

I cannot tell you the number of women—including several I know who are in their 20s—who use the word "compromise" when describing their life choices. I did it myself in my 20s, choosing to be a big fish in a little pond (a local newspaper) instead of pursuing my dream of working for a major newspaper. You know the story: husband, kids, aging parents, house, dog, cat, etc. We can "have it all," but with a price—our dreams, our sanity and often our health.

Unlike Sandberg, I don't fault the women who continue to make these choices. I fault a society that doesn't offer reasonable childcare (from a financial and an emotional perspective) and I fault corporate America, including many of those companies that bill themselves as leaders for women.

A Real Example

The few companies that are trying to really level the playing field for women understand that they aren't there yet. I moderated a panel last week on women branding themselves and having more "executive presence." One of the speakers was Maria Castañón Moats, the Chief Diversity Officer of PricewaterhouseCoopers. PwC is No. 1 on the 2012 DiversityInc Top 50 list, and for good reason—this is a company that continually challenges itself on how inclusive it actually is and never, ever rests on its laurels.

Maria talked about how PwC is working diligently to get its senior partners, still mostly white men, to connect more with younger women in the organization and how multifaceted and ongoing their organizational efforts are. This is a company that literally helps women (and men) plan their families every step of the way. Their numbers of women in management show a remarkable story of progress, one we rarely see in other companies. I'm not speaking loosely here; we have almost 900 companies participating in the DiversityInc Top 50 this year and the progress for women into the senior levels is pretty slow across the board.

But most companies don't have the self-awareness of PwC. Instead, they put their names out there with big media splashes and then refuse to really address the systemic and inherent sexism in their organizations.

Sandberg's Lean In project has "launch partners" including American Express, Google, Sony and Johnson & Johnson, according to The New York Times. Not sure exactly what that support involves beyond money, but I'd like to see those companies publicly disclose exactly how they are helping women move up and stay up—including hard numbers.

There's a lot of criticism of Sandberg because she's wealthy, works in Silicon Valley, has a supportive husband and lots of help. I'm not faulting her for her success or for her desires to share her ideas with other women. But if we let companies just buy their way to being "good for women," things are never going to really get "good for women."

My daughter's getting married later this year and talks about having kids in a couple of years. She's bright, she's beautiful and she would be a major asset anywhere she goes.  But if the responsibility of doing it all falls entirely on her shoulders, she'll probably follow in the footsteps of generations before her and compromise. And then we'll be looking at 20 percent women in the top level of Fortune 500 companies for a long time.

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